Tennessee had to win or they would be going home on Saturday. After losing 6-1 to Liberty late on Friday night, the Vols had to defeat UNC-Wilmington in an elimination game in order to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament.
And they did just that.
Two-seed Tennessee (39-20) took out four-seed UNC-Wilmington (32-31) 10-3 not even 12 hours after finishing their game against Liberty the night before. Due to a three-hour weather delay in the North Carolina vs. UNC-Wilmington game on Friday, the Vols didn’t play Liberty until 10:00 PM Eastern on Friday night. The game didn’t end until 1 AM Eastern, and the Vols had to turn around and play UNC-Wilmington at noon Eastern on Saturday.
That short turnaround didn’t seem to faze the Vols, though.
Jay Charleston got things going for Tennessee in the top of the first inning with a bunt single. He then attempted to steal second base, but the throw from the catcher went wide and into the outfield, allowing Charleston to advance to third.
That would be the first of many mistakes for the Seahawks on the day.
UNC-Wilmington then had a wild pitch, and Charleston gambled and sprinted towards home. He snuck in under the tag to slide across the plate, and he gave Tennessee an early 1-0 lead in the first.
A couple innings later, the Vols added to their lead. Alerick Soularie stole second base then got driven home by Ricky Martinez. Then, Martinez attempted to steal second himself, and the throw from the catcher hit him and ricocheted into no-man’s land in the outfield. Martinez didn’t let up and rounded third as UNCW scrambled to throw to home play. Martinez had no trouble scoring, though, and he increased UT’s lead to 3-0.
Meanwhile on the mound, freshman Camden Sewell got the start and was rolling along until the bottom of the fifth inning. The Seahawks got on the board in the bottom half of the fifth on a line drive single that drove the baserunner home from second, and Sewell was replaced by Garrett Crochet.
For Crochet, it marked the first time he took the mound for Tennessee since a line drive hit his face and broke his jaw against No. 15 Ole Miss in UT’s final series of the regular season. And he looked unfazed.
Crochet sat down the first six batters he faced until Matt Suggs got a base hit in the bottom of the seventh. UNC-Wilmington would follow that up with another single, putting Crochet in a jam with two on and two out.
But the sophomore would keep his poise, and he got out of the inning without allowing any damage.
In between that happening, the Vols tacked on two more runs. Martinez drove in another run, then Pete Derkay smacked a ball to deep right that the right fielder couldn’t bring in. The ball plopped off the right fielder’s glove, and Martinez rounded the bases and scored, giving Tennessee a 5-1 lead.
In the top of the 8th inning, Derkay would again come up to bat, only this time the bases were loaded. Derkay worked the at-bat to a full count, and he fouled off several pitches before eventually drawing a walk on a 10-pitch at-bat. The walk pushed across another run, making it 6-1 Tennessee.
Then, the game was busted wide open.
Connor Pavolony strode to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. He proceeded to smack a ball to right-center, and the center fielder could do nothing but watch the ball sail over the fence for a grand slam.
Pavolony’s grand slam gave the Vols a 10-1 lead, and that would be the final nail in the coffin for the Seahawks. UNCW would add two runs in the bottom of the ninth, but by then it was too little too late.
UNC-Wilmington committed five errors on the day, and that — coupled with stellar baserunning by the Vols — did them in. Tennessee finished the game with only six hits, but they ran the basepaths exceptionally well and used some timely hitting as well. Not only that, but UT’s pitching bounced back after a poor outing against Liberty.
Sewell gave Tennessee a solid four-plus innings, and Crochet’s gritty performance just weeks after suffering a broken jaw was another big highlight for the Vols. Charleston, Martinez, Derkay, and Pavolony all stepped up on offense as well.
The Vols eliminated UNC-Wilmington with their victory, and they stay alive in the Chapel Hill Regional for another day.
Tennessee will face the loser of the North Carolina-Liberty game on Sunday at noon Eastern.